Donors, Sometimes You Really Suck

The panic when a donor walks up the sidewalk with garbage bags filled with
My panic when a donor walks up the sidewalk with garbage bags filled with “good” clothes…

Someone had to say it.

Some days, when I picking up the tufts of hair I’ve pulled out of my scalp in frustration, I wonder why God created people with ears. Obviously the message isn’t getting through; or if it is, it’s not reaching the brain; or if it is, then the brain is smoking pot.

That’s it. It’s got to be pot. Dammit!

Lay off the weed, people!

Get out of the fog, clear your heads, shake it off, and think about what you’re doing.

As someone who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 16 years, I am acutely aware of what our specific needs are, our capacity to meet those needs, our policies and procedures to meet those needs, and the level of panic attack I’ll have when donors don’t listen to all those needs just listed above.

Why, God, WHY?!!?!?

When a donor:

  • Walks up the sidewalk with garbage bags full of “good clothes” (85% which turn out to be crap), and get angry at me for refusing the generous donation (our thrift store only closed down nearly 2 years ago…)
  • Gives boxes of canned or dry goods after cleaning out the ol’ pantry, but 95% of the food has expired 6 years ago (because canned goods last FOREVER apparently)
  • Drops off a sea-can size donation of furniture “because poor people can use it” (forgetting to check to see that we don’t have a sea-can; of if poor people really can use it)
  • Brings in cases (I kid you not) of sour patch licorice “because poor kids don’t get treats like other kids do”
  • Showcases “like new” duvets which turn out to be stained & smelling of cigarette smoke
  • Becomes upset when we decline any donation of stuffies (teddy bears, puppets, stuffed toys) because of health considerations
  • Listens to what we need carefully over the phone, and promptly brings in outdated cans of baby food (the first think the health inspector will always, always, always check when inspecting, and will remove if the expiry date is anywhere close)
  • Collects junk of all kinds for years, and then decides “Hey! One person’s junk will definitely be a poor person’s treasure. I’ll get my junk off my hands, and make it someone else’s problem!”
  • Calls me up around Christmas time saying, “I want to teach my kids/class/employees the meaning of true giving”, but then disappears in January never to be seen until — oh wait — next CHRISTMAS
  • Ask right off the bat: “How many people do you think abuse your program?” (not sure; how many people abuse your program???)
  • Tries to “volun-tour”; that is: a person wants to volunteer and do good while vacationing in the area (no idea what we need, who we are, or have a long-term vested interest in our mission/vision, but hey! As long as the donor feels satisfied… I guess…)

… then I proceed to my hair pulling. All this pandering to donors (because by and large you mean well) means extra work for me and other staff, wasted time trying to find people who will take unwanted/unneeded stuff, and a loss of physical space and missional focus for what we really need.

Any good fund developer/trainer will tell us that we (as NPO workers) need to massage all donor relationships. We need cash, in-kind, and volunteer support. We can’t exist without all three. When a donor/recipient relationship turns sour, it’s put on the NPO workers to make things right so we can keep the donations flowing in.

I trip up here. A lot.

My personal belief is that we are not beholden to ANY donor, especially when the donations coming in are:

  • useless
  • expired
  • dirty
  • broken
  • filthy
  • too large in volume to be managed by our agency
  • not what we need (i.e. swimming suits in January??)

… then we, as an NPO, have every right to decline the donation. If the donor is upset, that decision to be upset is on the donor. It’s not on us. Sure, if we treat donors in a lousy fashion anyone would have a reason to be upset. Crappy donations don’t mean we have to be mean.

But it does mean we have to stick to our boundaries.

  • If we don’t have room, we don’t have room. Take your merc somewhere else.
  • If your goods are expired or past they best buy dates, ask yourself: “Would I feed this to my family?” If you’re answer is NO, then why feed it to anyone else?
  • If you want to learn how to give back to your community, pick up the phone in May or October. Christmas comes but once a year, but keep tabs on our volunteer needs year round. It goes a long way.
  • Keep your vacays to yourself. But this is a really personal one, as I know others would disagree. Don’t turn us into your missions trip or outreach to somehow redeem your vacation or use up time because you’re bored. You simply won’t have the time to become invested in who we are, and right now we need people who will offer that life and time.
  • Call head. Call ahead. Call ahead. Call ahead. The Golden Rule of nonprofit work. CALL AHEAD. Learn what you’re charity of choice is in need of. If you have a bag full of used socks, consider that we need brand new underwear (and the space to remain free to store it) so socks aren’t a substitute; consider, too, that used socks might not be so healthy to donate to begin with.

We need you. We need our donors! We need you, your time, your cash, and your donations. But I hope you realize, too, that to function in a healthy way we need you to listen to us. We know best what we can and can’t take; what we need and don’t need; what will work and what won’t.

I hope you read this post with a little humour injected into it.

Trying to wade through people’s donations and intentions behind those donations is a crazy job. It’s even tougher when donors make it about themselves rather than what we actually need, or when the donations are flat-out unnecessary junk.

Take the time to CALL AHEAD.

Learn the needs.

Listen to the community.

Invest long-term.

You’ll find that a shift in how we give can make all the difference in the thriving life of a necessary nonprofit.

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